Leading One-on-One

aug_2008_blog_pictures-communication.jpgIf you are going to lead hordes of peeps someday you’d better start by being able to lead a single individual. Pretty much the only way we have of directly leading another person is through communication, and I sure as heck don’t mean email! (Talking face-to-face is fraught with plenty of misunderstandings, and I’ve often wished for a rewind and erase button on my mouth, but email is even more perilous.) In spite of the fact that many conversations resemble two TVs facing one another, communication is more than just talking. Communication also involves . . . brace yourself, I’m going to use the “L” word here . . . Listening.

Yes, as anti-climatic (no pun intended, and possibly no pun achieved) as that might have been for you all, one of the most powerful and overlooked tools in today’s leadership toolbox is the simple act of deeply listening to another person. I am not talking about the kind of listening that happens in ordinary conversations, where people are eager to raise objections, point out obstacles to any new idea, or recall how a similar idea previously failed. Breakthroughs in one-on-one leadership come through generous listening – listening with curiosity, with a spirit of inquiry and an assumption of positive intention on the part of the other person, rather than the over-used approach where we foist our own perspective on others, where ideas are debated rather than examined, fresh perspectives are silenced, and enthusiasm quickly evaporates.

Generous listening creates powerful “thinking partnerships” and a “thinking environment” where people are free to be far more creative and productive. Based on Nancy Kline’s book, “Time to Think: Listening to Ignite the Human Mind”, creating a “Thinking Environment” through generously listening to each other has transformed companies, government agencies, universities, schools, political groups and volunteer organizations. Rather than getting our mouth buttons stuck in the transmit mode, “Time to Think” advises us to listen like our life depends on it. Although we might need to clamp one hand over our mouth and feel as though we’re about to jump out of our skin waiting for the chance to hijack the conversation in a direction of our own choosing, the person being listened to will feel strangely liberated. Basically they start thinking more clearly when we give them someone to tell their story to uninterrupted.

Although I’ve never known anyone to change a long-standing habit like interrupting people or being an awful listener just because it has been proven ineffective, if you intend to become a great leader you might want to at least temporarily experiment with increasing the quality of your listening. This is truly where the language of leadership begins, with four magic words – “Interesting! Tell me more . . . ” followed by a sincere look of attentiveness on your face and the body language to match. Unfortunately, although we spend almost half of our waking hours listening, most people have never received any guidance on how to listen effectively. Leaders who master generous listening can deeply strengthen their relationships with others, unleash the group genius of their people, and transform entire organizations. What a pity it’s not a skill upon which most promotions and raises are based.

For a whole bunch of reasons people aspiring to lead effectively one-on-one should definitely focus on listening first. For one thing, other people are far more likely to listen to what you have to say after they feel listened to. After you’ve become reasonably competent at receiving messages from other people (except when dealing with telemarketers) you can move on to becoming more effective at sending your own messages. And, once again, I most assuredly do not mean via email. In fact, I don’t even mean just talking. Although English has been called the international business language, the words alone carry less than 10% of the meaning in a live, in-person conversation. And, as long as you are willing to communicate non-verbally, perfect English is not required for perfect understanding. Percy Barnevik, former CEO of the American construction company ABB, once joked that the common language at ABB was “bad English”. Tone of voice, facial expression, gestures and body languages, as well as context, contribute the vast majority of meaning in face-to-face discussions, so we can all understand each other fairly well even across language barriers. Yet many people insist on conducting most of their business communication via email even when the person receiving the email is sitting only a short walk away. Over-reliance on email creates misunderstandings that could be avoided, or easily resolved, with a single direct conversation and the full richness of non-verbal communication. Communication is not a one-way street, but email is . . . first one-way in one direction, then one-way in the other.

I suppose I should mention trust. No matter how good your communication skills, you’re going nowhere as a leader without it. Open and honest, face-to-face, two-way communication builds trust. Without getting too emotionally sappy here, trusting and meaningful communication between two people is based on an authentic heart-connection, the assumption of positive intent, and a true commitment to a mutually beneficial relationship. This kind of rapport (since love is a big no-no in the workplace) can be built most quickly and easily through face-to-face interaction. (Yes, I can hear you correcting me as I type . . . telling me how you’re very busy, that your team sits a world away, and it’s simply “impossible” for you to talk to other humans in person . . . but if by some miracle you could manage a couple of in-person conversations or even a phone call now and then . . . well, it’s just an idea.)

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration at all to claim that your effectiveness leading one-on-one will soar to dizzying heights if you start meeting with people in person to get the benefit of non-verbal expression into your communication, listen generously, with a spirit of positive intention and a commitment to mutual benefit. If you happen to be sitting less than 10 meters from some of the people you lead you might want to give it a try. Or you could just forward them this on email and wait for them to come to you. ; – )

– Kimberly Wiefling is the author of Scrappy Project Management: The 12 Predictable and Avoidable Pitfalls Every Project Faces, hovering among the top project management books in the USA since launch in 2007. She is the founder of Wiefling Consulting, a scrappy global business leadership consultancy committed to enabling her clients to successfully tackle seemingly impossible goals. For the past 3 years she has worked primarily with Japanese companies committed to becoming truly global through transformational leadership and execution with excellence.

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